Report questions secure use of voting machines
By Alex Wayne, Staff Writer
News & Record
A recent report on voting reform questions the security and accuracy of the kind of electronic touch-screen voting machines used in Guilford County, saying that the machines “have raised more suspicion than the antiquated punch-card and lever machines they were slated to replace.”
The report, issued last month by the group Electionline.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan clearing house for information on voting reform nationwide, summarizes criticism of the machines that has grown increasingly strident since last summer.
A coalition of computer-programming and security experts, government skeptics and members of Congress have said that the machines may be susceptible to computer hackers and prone to undocumented mechanical failures because they produce no paper record of a voter’s choices.
Many elections officials disagree. George Gilbert, Guilford County director of elections, said he and his staff thoroughly test the machines before elections and that hacking into them would be nearly impossible and probably a waste of time, regardless.
The machines are far easier to use and are more reliable than older, mechanical voting machines, Gilbert says; critics cannot show that such a machine has ever succumbed to fraud anywhere in the country.
“There’s a long and glorious history of voter fraud associated with paper ballots,” Gilbert said. “The only kind of voting system that has never had a documented case of tampering or election fraud is electronic voting systems.”
Critics, he said, “are speculating it could happen. It will, I’m sure, someday. (But) they’re really raising a lot of red flags; they’ve blown the issue way out of proportion.”
Nonetheless, the issue has emerged as the largest flash point in a national debate over how to improve the nation’s voting systems. After the 2000 election, which saw George W. Bush win the presidency after a tangled recount of votes in Florida and widespread accusations of ballot errors, Congress passed the “Help America Vote Act.”
The act commits $3.9 billion toward improving voting systems and upgrading the equipment citizens use. And until recently, electronic voting machines had been considered a huge improvement over the punch-card machines that led to the phrase “hanging chad” being indelibly linked with the 2000 election.
But critics of the new machines point to anomalies that have been reported across the country — malfunctions that, though evidently not a product of fraud, may have led to ballots being lost or cast blank. Further, because the machines produce no paper record of each ballot cast, critics say there is no meaningful way to conduct a recount of votes in close elections.
Doug Chapin, director of Electionline, says that his group is not a critic of the machines and does not advocate any particular change in the way they work. But, he said: “It’s definitely a fact, when you use those machines, there’s really no way independent of the (machines’ memory cartridges) to do a recount. That’s totally an issue.”
Recounts became an issue in Guilford in the fall, when City Council member Florence Gatten won re-election by an eight-vote margin over challenger Bob Skenes. The recount consisted of asking the machines to calculate the vote total again and comparing it against print-outs of the total votes cast on each machine during the election.
Skenes is not a critic of the machines and is sure the election was fair. “I think we’ve got a heck of a system,” he said. “It’s fast, efficient; you’d have to be some kind of computer whiz, and have a whole lot of people colluding with you, to do something screwy and try to rig an election.”
Critics say accidents and anomalies are common. And without paper ballots, they say, there is no way to know when things go wrong.
“There have been numerous anomalies and weirdness with these machines (nationwide),” David Dill, a computer science professor at Stanford University, said in a phone interview. “It’s not clear if there’s been an investigation of whether (they were) fraud, and it’s not clear if there was ever any evidence to be investigated.”
Dill argues on a Web site, verifiedvoting.org, that voting machines should be required to produce a paper record of every voter’s ballot that voters can inspect before leaving their polling places. He and like-minded critics have won support in Congress. A bill in the U.S. House would require printers to be attached to machines like Guilford’s that don’t already produce paper ballots. It has 82 co-sponsors, almost all of them Democrats, according to the Electionline report.
Gilbert and other elections directors say that such a step would be costly, would complicate what is an efficient voting process and would make voting more difficult for disabled people.
“It’s a giant leap backwards,” Gilbert said. “We’ve already had paper. We’ve demonstrated that paper can’t be counted accurately, that paper can be switched and manipulated.”
But because of the controversy, the director of the state Board of Elections, Gary Bartlett, advises counties shopping for new voting machines to wait until Congress settles the issue.
“Certainly I think that currently (electronic voting) machines are under scrutiny; until some of the issues are resolved there, we will have folks that do not place a lot of faith in that equipment,” Bartlett said.
Bartlett and Gilbert say some of the machines experience minor problems in every election. Screens malfunction, batteries go dead. They say they know of no elections that have been imperiled by such problems. But in the fall, Gilbert said, an unusually large number of blank ballots were cast during the school-bond referendum.
Records from Gilbert’s office show that voters in mostly rural precincts — where the bond was the only item on the ballot — cast 354 blank ballots. The blanks amounted to only about half a percent of the total vote and could not have changed the outcome of the election. The bonds were approved by a 2-1 margin.
Gilbert said the percentage of blank ballots was “extraordinarily high” in some precincts. A few of the blank ballots were because of mistakes by poll workers, he said. But he said he has no explanation for most of them, though he is sure the voting machines are not to blame.
Guilford has been using the touch-screen machines since 1988, and Gilbert is considered by his peers to be an expert on their mechanics and testing. Every machine to be used in an election goes through a basic test of its functionality, and up to 15 percent of the machines go through a full election simulation.
Still, Gilbert acknowledged a few security weaknesses. For example, the voting machines are protected by passwords and codes that are four characters long at most. Many Internet security experts recommend that passwords be at least eight characters long.
And none of the machines is routinely tested immediately after Election Day, a step that Gilbert said he may add. Gilbert also recently asked the county’s Information Services department to review the security of the master computer database that holds election information.
Ultimately, though, the security and accuracy of the nation’s ballots has little to do with computers and much to do with the trustworthiness of the people running elections. Most cases of election fraud, he noted, have stemmed from corrupt elections officials.
“The security of our elections isn’t in the firmware, it isn’t in the hardware,” he said. “It’s in the liveware. It’s the people.”
Contact Alex Wayne at 373-7098 or email@example.com